Saturday, February 7, 2015

Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980) - 35th Anniversary Retrospective

Like last week, this Saturday sees another Argento film celebrating its birthday. Released in Italy 35 years ago today, Inferno is one of the director's more challenging works and perhaps something of an acquired taste. I've always liked it myself but it's only in the last year or so that it's started to rival Phenomena (see previous post) as my favourite of Dario's. It's somewhat tougher to articulate what it is that's great about the former than the latter and it's also harder to recommend to a general audience. Nonetheless, I'll attempt to give the uninitiated (an apt word considering what the film concerns) a sense of what the movie is about and hopefully help them decide whether or not to make the descent into what is arguably the most mysterious and defiantly dreamlike film in Argento's canon.

As Inferno is so purely cinematic and seemingly almost anti-narrative, it's only necessary to very briefly sketch out the story. A follow up to the now classic Suspiria, this film is also essentially a fairy tale. But where its predecessor was intended (in Argento's words) as for children (how young I'm not sure, given some of its ultra-violent content), this time the target audience is an adult one. To me none of this really helps much in giving an idea as to what Inferno is about but it's a start. But what of the plot, I hear you ask! Thanks for the reminder, I'll attempt a synopsis of sorts...

The middle part of Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy (more on that later), the film follows a brother (Leigh McCloskey) and sister (Irene Miracle) attempting to unravel the mysteries surrounding said trinity and a sinister, downright strange New York apartment building inhabited by the latter. When she disappears, he flies over from Rome (where he's studying music) to investigate.

Now I realise this doesn't tell anyone unfamiliar with the film very much but honestly, even if I outlined the setup in detail, it probably wouldn't help you a great deal. As I suggested earlier, the story is very much a springboard for the series of surreal, nightmarish sequences that follows and as a result it's probably best to go in knowing as little as possible apart from that one shouldn't get hung up on making sense of things narratively and should instead throw left brain logic out of the window and let it all seep and soak into the subconscious. Admittedly this might be a hard sell for some and I'll concede Inferno is undoubtedly not for everyone. But for those who with a predilection for riddles and lovers of the mysterious, I'd say it's a must see.

Its enigmatic nature aside, the other major reason to see this is for its gorgeous, extraordinary cinematography. Possessing a more controlled colour palette (a psychedelic taxi ride aside) than SuspiriaInferno is no less beautiful to look at (this would make a great demo disc for Blu-Ray players by the way). Framed this time in 1.85:1 (instead of the wider 2.35:1 of its predecessor) and with Romano Albani (who also shot Phenomena) stepping into the shoes previously worn by Luciano Tovoli, the film's lighting schemes consist mainly of combinations of blue and red as opposed to the rainbow's worth of colours seen in the former film. And while not processed in the three-strip Technicolor process that made Suspiria's visuals so unique, this is still arguably one of the greatest displays of how to use colour in a horror film ever, comparing favourably with its sister film and the work of Mario Bava... which brings us neatly to a reason why Inferno is hugely important in terms of horror history...

The father of Italian horror cinema, Mario Bava's contributions to not only his native Italy's genre cinema but to film as a whole, are many, and sadly I don't have the time to go into them here (a quick search online will dig up a wealth of information on the great man). A cinematic magician and special effects genius, Bava's career essentially came full circle with Inferno. Before becoming a director, he was known and well respected for his effects work, being able to conjure movie magic from the most modest of resources. It was in this capacity that he would contribute to Inferno, which would prove to be his final film. Mario Bava died on April 25th (though for some reason IMDb says 27th) 1980 aged 65, leaving behind a vast legacy that has still to gain the wider recognition and respect it undoubtedly deserves. As someone said once, if he'd been born in England or America, he'd probably be as well known and regarded as Hitchcock.

There's been some confusion and debate over the years concerning the extent of Bava's work on Inferno. It was often said that he filmed the famous underwater ballroom sequence but it's now generally accepted that Gianlorenzo Battaglia (who also shot the underwater footage for Phenomena) was actually responsible. I've heard in a few places that Mario directed certain scenes while Dario was too ill to do so (he was stricken with Hepatitis during the shoot) but have been unable to find concrete confirmation of this. What does seem agreed upon is that he created the film's miniatures and optical effects, which makes sense considering his background and phenomenal talent in this area. At any rate, this was a fitting final film for Bava to work on and it caps off one hell of a career.

Stop the presses (as it were)! My good friend Brad (of Yellow Razor and Hello! This is the Doomed Show) was kind enough to consult his copy of the Tim Lucas Mario Bava tome All the Colors of the Dark and informed me of the following: Bava's contributions to the film included glass matte paintings, maquettes (miniature sculptures) and in camera tricks such as the brilliantly executed mirror shot that takes place in the finale. Apparently his grandson Roy also helped with the maquettes, meaning that three generations of Bavas worked on the film (Demons director and Mario's son, Lamberto was assistant director). Finally, I'm told that Bava constructed the New York buildings seen during exterior scenes in the film. Cheers for helping clear that up Brad!

Kudos are also very much due to art director Giuseppe Bassan (who had worked with Argento on Deep Red and Suspiria) and set decorators Francesco Cuppini and Maurizio Garrone for creating some richly detailed, endlessly fascinating locales for the characters to explore, and to Keith Emerson for his dynamic, memorable score... and r.e. the latter, I find myself listening to it more often than the more lauded, revolutionary soundtrack for Suspiria (for more on that see this post on my favourite Italian horror scores).

I've discussed the talent behind the scenes at length but what of those in front of the camera? We'll get to that shortly but first a brief digression. One of the things that makes Inferno somewhat inaccessible to many is the lack of a consistent central character for the audience to identify with. We begin the film following Irene Miracle's character Rose Elliot but after she disappears we spend the remainder in the company of her brother Mark (played by McCloskey). But as we discussed earlier, this isn't necessarily a flaw and is perhaps to be expected in a film where narrative plays second fiddle to imagery and atmosphere.

Miracle and McCloskey are both fine as the ostensible leads. The latter has been criticised for being a bit bland or vacant, which I can sort of see. But for me personally, his seeming half-asleep detachment is ideal for the film. Apparently Argento wanted James Woods for the role, which would have been interesting. As it stands though I'm happy with how it turned out... and lets face it, if James Woods had played the role, the film would have felt very different.

The supporting cast are also very good, with performances from Argento repeat offenders Daria Nicolodi (seen above, she also helped Dario create the mythos upon which this, Suspiria and The Mother of Tears are based) and Alida Valli, the sinister looking Sacha Pitoëff as creepy bookseller Kazanian, and two striking looking ladies who would also make memorable appearances in films made by Lucio Fulci the following year... i.e. Veronica Lazar (seen below on the right. Valli is on the left) and Ania Pieroni (the gorgeous girl with the cat seen further up the page). Acclaimed actor (and another person returning to Argento-land) Gabriele Lavia makes a brief appearance and credit is also due to Eleonora Giorgi, who does a damn fine job looking scared.

Finally before we wrap things up, some brief background notes. It's generally well known that Thomas de Quincey's Suspiria de Profundis (and in particular a section titled "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow") provided the idea for the Three Mothers mythos but another important inspiration seems to be remarked upon much less, and it's something that provides one of the keys that may help unlock the film. Specifically, I'm referring to alchemy. An alchemist is an important character within the film (and his name seems to vaguely resemble that of the mysterious master alchemist Fulcanelli) but analyses of the film don't often seem to pick up on the potential significance this might have for the whole.

Now to be fair, this is something I took for granted for a long time myself and it's only in recent years that I've started to appreciate how much the film, like the building itself, is full of secrets. According to Argento, his intentions for Inferno were informed by reading about alchemy and visiting old cathedrals, which are themselves full of alchemical symbolism and riddles. This inspired him to create a film that would "be full of puzzles"... posing questions but leaving the answers up to the viewer. On this level I'd say he was successful, one of the great pleasures of Inferno being that every time I watch it I'm left with both more questions and potential answers than I had before.

By the way, if you have a shit ton of spare time on your hands and really want to go off the synchro-mystic deep end with this film and its mythos, check out this epic travelogue, written by director, anthropologist and friend of Dario, Richard Stanley. I'm not sure what I make of it all but it makes for a very interesting read and helps put you further in the mindset needed to get the most out of the movie.

So in summation I'd say this obviously isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea and it's probably not a good film to watch if you're still new to Argento and Italian horror. But for lovers of cinematic eye candy and those into the weird, wonderful and often unexplained, I'd say hunt down a copy asap. If you've seen it and didn't care for it, bear in mind all I've said and give it another chance. And if it's a firm favourite as it with me, I hope you watch it tonight to celebrate. I'll certainly be doing so myself!


  1. Wow. As usual you have written a book worthy review my friend! I always appreciate your reviews as you wed your superb writing style, chock full of thought provoking analysis to a great enthusiasm of the genre.

    Thanks for the shout out and if any of the info is faulty, I accept full blame!

    I can't remember offhand who said it (Alan Jones?) but it's been said that Inferno is THE most underrated horror film of the 80's. I can't think of any other that would suit that appellation. Brilliant review Simon. I say that a lot. It's true.

    1. Many thanks for the kind words my friend, I'm greatly flattered by your comments!

      No problem for the shout out, it was the least I could do of course!

      I forgot to mention what you said about Bava not directing any scenes or working on on-screen special effects but hopefully that can be inferred from the above or people will read these comments as well.

      And that was Jones' friend Kim Newman who said that. I'm glad you brought it up as I totally forgot to mention it. I whole heartedly occur with the statement myself. I think amongst Italian horror fans this is well loved but within the genre more generally speaking it seems to fall under the shadow of Suspiria, which is a damn shame.

  2. It's a great shame indeed. I'm always confusing Newman and Jones.

    1. Easily done. I tend to agree and disagree with them both in equal measure so they're somewhat mixed up in my mind too.